On Women’s Equality Day, Which Women Do We Mean?

Today is Women’s Equality Day in the United States, celebrated yearly since 1971 on August 26th to mark the certification of the 19th amendment to the Constitution that extended the right to vote to women.

While this is an occasion to celebrate, there are a few myths, lies, and blatant rewrites of history that pop up every year that should be addressed. This is by no means an exhaustive list or a full, intersectional history of the battle for suffrage, but rather an attempt to muddy the conversation about which women we’re really talking about when we speak of “women’s equality.”

Myth: The 19th Amendment “gave” women the right to vote.

Fact: No one “gave” or “granted” women anything. Suffrage is a right one is born with in a free democracy, a right that was denied to women by the founders of our nation who did not see white women and all folks of color as human enough to deserve it. Organizers endured heckling, ostracization, beatings, force feedings and, in some cases, even death to get the 19th amendment passed — it was a fight for justice too long denied, not a polite request finally granted.

Lie: The 19th Amendment extended the right to vote to women.

Truth: This is only true if your definition of “women” is “white, cisgender, documented women.” Women and men of color, especially in the South, continued to face barriers to voting in the form of literacy tests, “grandfather” clauses, and Jim Crow laws until the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965. The Voting Rights Act was recently gutted by the Supreme Court, which means that many folks of color will again be disenfranchised under the same ideology that assumes elected white people get to decide who “deserves” the right of suffrage. (See: North Carolina and Texas.) Additionally, undocumented women and men, who contribute to the nation as a whole and their communities specifically, are still denied the right to vote on the policies that impact their lives and those of their families. Women who have been convicted of felonies are also barred from voting. Voter ID laws, which require the gender one was assigned at birth to match the gender one actually is, prohibit many trans* folks from accessing the polls as well.

Historical Rewrite: White women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Alice Paul thought up, led, and won the battle for suffrage.

Historical Truth: While those names are the ones most often mentioned in history books, those same texts both fail to recognize the women and men of color who fought for suffrage and cover up the fact that many of the white women leaders of the suffrage movement were pretty damn racist. They also fail to mention that early white suffragists like Stanton and Anthony were radicalized by interacting with Iroquois women, who were voting members on tribal councils and had the final say on the appointment of village chiefs. The suffragists who actually credited Native women’s influence on their organizing did so only to position indigenous cultures as “savage” in order shame white men into being more “enlightened” than Native peoples. The same white women who were spurred to action by Native women’s roles later aligned themselves with organizations that fought for the disenfranchisement of “blanketed Indians.”

Many of the staunchest advocates for universal suffrage were abolitionists. Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Mary Church Terrell, Margaretta Forten, Harriet Forten Purvis, and Mary Ann Shadd Cary, all Black women, were leaders in the suffrage movement who faced discrimination from their white “sisters” in the fight. The National Women’s Suffrage Association’s official position was that suffrage for white women should come first, at the expense of voting rights for women and men of color. During the famed 1913 march, Alice Paul ordered Black women to march at the back in order to avoid offending racist white Southern women — Ida B. Wells refused and slipped out of the line to take her rightful place in the Illinois delegation at the front of the parade. Susan B. Anthony, in just one of her many racist oppressions, was instrumental in the exclusion of ardent women’s rights supporter Frederick Douglass from a suffrage conference in Atlanta.

Myth, Lie, and Historical Rewrite: “Women’s Equality” and the continued fight for women’s rights in 2013 is inclusive of all women.

Sad but important truth: It’s not.

The “mainstream” feminist movement of today — meaning the writing, organizing, and other work that gets the most attention, resources, and privilege — remains centered on the rights, lives, and experiences of white, non-Native, cisgender, documented, straight, able-bodied women. Women whose identities match these privilege sets, women like me, actively appropriate the work of women whose do not, erase their histories, assail their identities and set up fiscal, political, social, and cultural barriers in order to interrupt and negate the organizing of women of color, trans* folks, disabled people, undocumented people, and those who live their lives at the intersections of those identities. Just check out #solidarityisforwhitewomen, started by Mikki Kendall and explained here, and #dearcispeople. Google Cece McDonald and #girlslikeus. See women’s groups that claim to be fighting for all women who endorse candidates who voted for Stop and Frisk and refuse to support comprehensive immigration reform or go to the mat for Native women’s inclusion in the Violence Against Women Act. The list goes on and on.

Women’s Equality Day has a noble goal: uplift the history of the struggle for women’s rights and highlight the continued work toward gender justice. But if we aren’t committed to problematizing the history we’ve been taught, to centering the work of marginalized folks and learning the histories that have been erased from textbooks, and to coming to terms with the fact that when many feminists say they work for women’s equality but really just mean some women, then we’re just celebrating and continuing oppression.

I don’t have the answer to ending that continued oppression but I do know that it’s not the feminist movement that I want or that anyone needs. As a counterpoint to the unexamined celebratory links going around today, I’ve begun to compile a list of resources that celebrate the heroines who’ve been erased from history and examine the history of oppression within the suffrage movement that continues today. If you have other links, please put them in the comments and I’ll add them to the list.

Woman Suffrage at the Turn of the Century: The Rising Influence of Racism — Angela Davis

How Racism Tainted Women’s Fight to Vote — Monée Fields-White

How Native Americans Influenced the Women’s Suffrage Movement — Jessica Diemer-Eaton

Not All Women Won the Right to Vote Today — Renee Martin

Homespun Heroines And Other Women of Distinction — compiled and edited by Hallie Quinn

African American Women and the Vote, 1837-1965 — (book) Cynthia Neverdon-Morton (Author), Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham (Author), Martha Prescod Norman (Author), Bettina Aptheker (Author), Ann D. Gordon (Editor), Bettye Collier-Thomas (Editor)

African American Women In The Struggle for the Vote, 1850-1920 — (book) Rosalyn Terborg-Penn

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Where Are the Global Girl Activists?

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Where are the young women in the fight for global women’s rights?

Don’t ask me this stupid question today. Most days I could calmly and politely explain to you where and how young women are doing this work. How it looks differently than it did before, that the keywords are different and much of the work is being done online as well as offline. Calm and polite is not something I can muster today.

Because today the answer is this: the young women in the fight for global women’s rights are being shot in the head in Pakistan for fighting for girls’ right to education.

Malala Yousufzai is fourteen years old. When she was eleven, the private girls school owned by her father was forced to close, along with all other schools for girls in Swat, Pakistan at the order of the Taliban.

Malala and her family knew the danger of defying the ban – as troops rolled in to enforce it, other families fled the violence in hope of finding peace and educational opportunities for their whole families. But Malala’s family was determined to stay and fight for their school and their community.

Malala was also determined to speak out against the ban. At just 11, she began writing an anonymous blog for the BBC about the conditions in Swat and the girl’s determination to resume their education. In that diary, she wrote of continuing her education in her bedroom and of nightmares she had about Taliban fighters coming to kill her and her family. At the time she wrote of her activism, “I started asking why girls were denied their basic right to education. Why were (the) Taliban hurting innocent people and how my friends and I wished to attend school to grow in life?”

By the time she was 13, Malala had been featured in two New York Times documentaries about the battle for girls education in Pakistan. She was nominated for the International Children’s Peace Prize and was honored with the Pakistan National Peace Prize. A school was named after her. No longer anonymous, she publicly called on girls and their families to return to school. And she broadened her activism to include advocating for freedom from the Taliban and peace in her nation.

This morning the Taliban claimed responsibility for shooting Malala in the head and neck on a school bus as she returned home from school. When the gunman boarded the bus and asked which girl was her, the other students tried to protect her. He shot two other girls for their defiance. The Taliban official said Malala’s assassination had been in the works for over a year.

This morning, Malala is fighting for her life in a hospital in Pakistan because she spoke out when she saw an injustice. This morning, of all mornings, on the week of the International Day of the Girl. And this morning, people will still be asking where girls are in the fight for global women’s rights.

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The Terrorism That Killed Dr. Tiller Remains A Threat

This you probably know: three years ago today, abortion provider Dr. George Tiller was murdered in his church by anti-abortion terrorist Scott Roeder.

You may not know that this is also the 9th year anniversary of the arrest of Eric Rudolph, the anti-abortion terrorist who was eventually convicted of bombing a clinic in Birmingham, Alabama. That bomb, which was made of dynamite surrounded by nails, killed part-time security guard Robert Sanderson and critically injured nurse Emily Lyons.

Today is a day to stop and remember a man who often wore a button that said, simply, “trust women.” Dr. George Tiller provided women’s reproductive care for over thirty years, including later abortions that many providers couldn’t or wouldn’t do. Women travelled to his Kansas clinic from all over the United States to get the basic health care they couldn’t access anywhere else. Their reasons for going were as varied as the women themselves but Dr. Tiller knew that every choice was a thoughtful, justified one. He simply trusted women to know what was best for them and their families. For this radical act, he was shot in the head.

But today is also a day to remember that anti-abortion terrorism – and that’s what it is and so we must name it – is a very real threat. Following Dr. Tiller’s murder, there were 49 reported acts of trespassing and 114 acts of vandalism against abortion providers. Before Dr. Tiller’s death, violence directed at abortion providers killed seven people, including three doctors, two clinic employees, a security guard and a clinic escort.

As we remember Dr. Tiller today, clinics across the country are on high alert following three fires at women’s clinics in the south. One fire in Georgia targeted a gynecological office that didn’t provide abortions. Another broke out at an abortion clinic, also in Georgia, while there were patients and staff inside. And the offices of an organization in New Orleans that provides women’s health services and organizes on behalf of marginalized communities, Women With A Vision, was broken into and then burned to the ground. (Women With A Vision is accepting donations to rebuild and continue on with their work – if you can help, please do so here.)

Thankfully, no one was injured in any of these incidents. Yet it’s as clear as it was three years ago that trusting women is still, for some, a good enough reason to commit acts of terrorist violence.

I didn’t write this post to take away from the many wonderful remembrances of Dr. Tiller’s life that are being penned today. I didn’t write this post to get into an argument about whether or not all people who are opposed to abortion are in favor of violence to end it – they aren’t and there are many other days and many other spaces to discuss how the anti-abortion movement does and does not deal with terrorists in its ranks.

I wrote this post as a reminder that Dr. Tiller was not the first and sadly will probably not be the last victim of anti-abortion terrorism. I wrote this post to remind all of us who fight for reproductive freedom that the people who provide know that every day they walk into work they could be killed for doing their job AND THEY STILL DO IT because they, like Dr. Tiller, trust women. Dr. Tiller himself knew all too well that he could die for this conviction. If that’s not heroism that should be remembered and honored every day, well, I don’t know what is.

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Google Doodles Still Erasing Women’s History

Two years ago, I wrote a post over at Feministe calling out Google Doodles – described by Google as “changes that are made to the Google logo to celebrate holidays, anniversaries and the lives of famous artists, pioneers and scientists” – for pretending women haven’t existed for most of history. At the time, I counted only 8 women out of the 109 birthdays that had been celebrated in the program’s history.

This has irked me every time I’ve seen a Doodle honoring a dude since I wrote that post but I stopped blogging, got a full time job, and never went back to count again. Until this morning, when I saw that today’s Doodle is honoring Howard Carter, the British archaeologist credited with discovering Egyptian King Tutankhamen’s tomb and accused, by some, of stealing artifacts from his famous find. I wondered, ‘how is Google doing on representing women’s history in 2012?’

The answer is sad and disappointing, if not surprising.

Of 48 global Google Doodles honoring birthdays in 2012, 5 have honored women. That’s 10 percent. [citation]

Really, Google? Women are more than 50% of the world but you insist, in the way that you mark historical achievement, that only 10% of notable historical humans are female?

With all the serious challenges women face, why is this important? What I wrote back in 2010 still stands:

Because we’ve lived with the myth that men created the world and everything good in it for long enough. As long as men get to designate who and what in history is important, young women will continue to learn that all their sex has contributed throughout all of history is their wombs. If we can’t see ourselves as the inventors, artists, revolutionaries and creators that came before, how the hell are we supposed to fashion ourselves into the modern versions? Schools certainly aren’t doing a very good job in this department and since it processes over a billion searches a day, Google plays an increasingly important role in how and what young people learn.

The company recently posted a job opening for a Doodler in Mountain View. Google, like many of its tech counterparts, would do well to realize that more female voices in the room are proven to be better for business. In this case, a woman who was willing to teach them about half a world of history could do a whole world of good.

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Young Lakota Fights for EC for Native Women

Sunny Clifford, on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

Thanks to the efforts of reproductive freedom advocates, emergency contraception — a pill or set of pills that can be taken up to 5 days after unprotected sex to prevent pregnancy — is legally available to all women 17 and older over the counter without a prescription.

But for many Native American women, this right simply isn’t a reality. According to a new report by Native American Women’s Health Resource Center (NAWHRC), women who access health care via Indian Health Services often face barriers to getting the drug. Some are told they have to see a doctor in order to get it. Others simply find that the medication isn’t in stock on their reservation.

This is especially alarming in light of the fact that 1 in 3 Native women will be raped in their lifetime. Survivors of rape and sexual assault report being turned away at IHS clinics when they go to request the drugs. Even worse, other women told NAWHRC that they were blamed and shamed for their own assault by the service provider they trusted to help them.

Today is National Back Up Your Birth Control Day and advocates across the country are spreading the message that having EC on hand in case of a birth control failure is the responsible thing to do. But Native women can’t even start there — they’re having to fight for the right to get it at all, in any situation.

Leading the online charge is Sunny Clifford, a twenty six year-old Lakota woman living on the Pine Ridge reservation. Like many people on her reservation, she doesn’t have a car and has to rely on the IHS clinic in her community for all of her health care needs. She worries that if she or one of her sisters needed EC, she wouldn’t be able to get it. And she’s furious that Native women are being denied a legal right by the Indian Health Services, the very institution that’s charged with protecting Native women’s health.

Sunny has started a petition on Change.org asking Dr. Yvette Roubideaux, the Director of Indian Health Services, to immediately issue a directive to service providers on all reservations that emergency contraception must be made available to any woman 17 or older who asks for it, on demand, without seeing a doctor. Sunny believes that if enough people shame Dr. Roubideaux for denying basic health services to Native women, she’ll be forced to make real changes in how IHS distributes emergency contraception.

Will you sign Sunny’s petition and share it with your friends to help demand equal access to emergency contraception? Below are some sample Facebook and Twitter posts to help get you started.

FACEBOOK: 1 in 3 Native American women will be raped. But Indian Health Services is blocking Native Women from accessing emergency contraception when they need it. Will you stand with Indian women to demand equal access to basic reproductive health care? http://www.change.org/petitions/ihs-stop-blocking-native-women-s-access-to-emergency-contraception

TWITTER: On #BUYBC day, a young Lakota woman,@SunnyClifford, is fighting for access to #EC for Native women http://chn.ge/HeZlhq

Fannie Lou Hamer said, “nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” And a right guaranteed isn’t really a right at all until every single woman can access it. On this Back Up Your Birth Control Day, please stand with Sunny and Native women across the nation to demand equal access to emergency contraception.


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On Her 77th Birthday, 7 Things I’ve Learned From Gloria Steinem

When I first thought about writing a post to honor my friend Gloria Steinem’s 77th birthday I figured a quick Google search would yield some cool, applicable numerology about the “lucky number 7″ to plug-in as an inspiring intro.

The first Google search result for the meaning of the number 77 sent me to Wikipedia. Turns out, “in certain numerological systems based on the English alphabet, the number 77 is associated with Jesus Christ.” Alternatively, “in the Islamic tradition, “77″ figures prominently.”

But of course I’d learn while researching something pertaining to Gloria that my knee-jerk cultural association with the number 7 as lucky is deeply rooted in patriarchal religions from the East and West!  I’ve learned similar lessons so many times it no longer shocks me when Gloria tells audience members who ask about her faith, “Religion is politics in the sky. When God looks like the ruling class, we’re in deep shit.”

Indeed. And so it goes, learning things that should be common sense but are not because marginalized people have been denied our history and our original cultures and conditioned to distrust any innate survival instincts that manifest because that’s how kyriarchy is maintained.

I hadn’t made many of those connections when I showed up on Gloria Steinem’s doorstep four years ago to take care of her animals while she was away for the summer. I was moving to New York City to give up my life of speaking at colleges and feminist conferences to earn my keep in the movement the old-fashioned way: poorly paid grunt work. To make a long story short, Gloria eventually returned and informed me that what I’d been doing was called itinerant feminist organizing and I was part of a long line of women – Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Tubman, Fannie Lou Hamer, and many more – who made their mark traveling from city to city to speak and lend a hand to local organizers. She encouraged me to continue in this noble line of work and even offered to let me stay with her for a while as I got my financial and social footing in the big city.

Yup, a very cool experience to live with Gloria Steinem for a bit and one that reporters and acquaintances alike love to romanticize and wonder about. In truth, it is an interesting story and not one I’m ready to tell in full  because I can’t possibly analyze and translate the lessons I’ve learned from this “feminist icon” just yet. But it does bother me that on days like today there will be blogs posts and articles that memorialize Gloria as if she’s already gone or as if she’s a one-dimensional gray photograph in a history book with a list of accomplishments in the side bar. Few of these will represent the very human, ever evolving woman who is constantly teaching, by words and deeds, how to live a life dedicated to making the world better for all people. So, on her 77th birthday, a few of the things I’ve picked up that daily influence my organizing, my worldview, my life:

1. Patriarchy is a relatively new mistake. If we think the world has always been run by and for men – mostly White and all of the colonizing sort – we assume that oppressing women and people of color is the natural order. I’d been so indoctrinated by this false history that it shook my whole world when Gloria spoke of egalitarian original cultures that honored and lived by the rule that both men and women have equal, necessary roles to play in society. For instance, the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) clan mothers, to this day, have the sole power to nominate the chiefs that go on to represent the tribe in the Grand Council. In other Iroquois Nations, the women alone controlled the food supply, meaning male warriors had to seek their permission for rations to take to the battlefield. Once you know to look for them, examples like these abound, allowing us to imagine our struggle for equality as one to turn the world back right side up!

2. “If it looks like a duck and walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, but you think it’s a pig… it’s a pig.” Self explanatory enough – trust yourself, always. For many of us marginalized people, we’ve been taught to do just the opposite. This is what oppressive forces want and something we must resist with all of our being.

3. Ask the turtle. Via Donna Brazile, a story Gloria tells often: “While on a field trip in college with her geology class, [Gloria] discovered a giant snapping turtle that had climbed out of the river, up a dirt path, right to the edge of a road. Worried it would soon be run over, she wrestled the enormous reptile off the embankment and back down to the water. At that moment, her professor walked up and asked what in the world she was doing. With some pride, she told him. He said that the turtle had probably spent a month crawling up that long dirt path to safely lay its eggs in the mud on the side of the road and that she had destroyed all that effort with her “rescue.” This story informs every organizing effort I take to this day: always ask the communities you’re trying to “help” what really needs to be done and how or you’ll invariably do more harm than good.

4. Good ideas are not a finite resource. From board rooms to organizing meetings, it’s more common than not for people to fiercely protect their ideas for fear of not receiving credit. But in reality, no one has the capacity to effectively enact every single idea they have. I’ve been privileged to watch Gloria share ideas freely with other organizers, lending her name to them if it helps but perfectly willing to hand them over without a mention if it doesn’t. More importantly, she is constantly introducing people to one another who can combine resources to make ideas come to fruition. I’ve learned that the best thing an organizer can do is help others brainstorm, act as a support where and when they can, and step away when they can’t.

5. Real intergenerational relationships are possible but only if both parties are equal. With more than fifty years between us and more than a thousand miles between me and my biological family, it was easy for me to slip into imagining Gloria as my adopted grandmother. Or, if I wasn’t thinking that, she was obviously my mentor, teaching me how to be an effective feminist organizer. She made a habit of gently correcting me: we’re friends, colleagues, and co-conspirators. She taught me that pasting familial terms and the mentor label onto any relationship between people of different generation creates a power imbalance that insists the older person has everything to teach and the younger person everything to learn. How limiting that is, when you think about it, and this is probably the root of a lot of the intergenerational conflict within the feminist movement. Therefore, a fave Gloria quote: “We need to remember across generations that there is as much to learn as there is to teach.”

6. We all need “chosen family.” Some of us are blessed with a supportive, understanding biological family unit and others are not. But we all benefit from finding and connecting with others who simply get, to the very core, who we are. I’ve tried to follow Gloria’s example of building a small group of like-minded friends with whom I meet regularly to laugh, cry, organize, drink, and play. With bad news coming from every corner and patriarchs freaking out at our growing power, we really and truly do need our sisterhood.

7. Perhaps the only true sentences in the English language are those that begin with “I.” All humans, but especially female humans, connect best via personal stories. It’s our personal truths and experiences that inform our activism and as soon as we abandon the personal for academic or movement language, we lose the essence of what made us committed to social equality in the first place. Gloria taught me to stop talking if I find myself speaking in theories and return to what in my personal story made me connect with whatever I’m talking about.

There’s much more I’ve learned, I’m sure, but this blog post is long enough as it is! So for today, happy, happy, birthday Gloria – here’s to many more years, mutual learning, and stories!

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Let Women’s History Month Begin!

A collage of powerful sheroes of today and yesterday, I made this collage to celebrate WHM 2010. Look for this year's version soon!

 

If you’ve ever read this blog or been subjected to me inserting “this day in women” facts into dinner conversation, you can imagine I’m very excited for today, the first day of women’s history month. Whether they truly want to or not, the rest of the parts of the internets I visit are going to be as obsessed with the women of the past as I am for a whole 31 days!

Gerda Lerner, one of the first American women’s historians, said in 1986, “When I started working on women’s history about thirty years ago, the field did not exist. People didn’t think that women had a history worth knowing.” Women’s History Month as it’s celebrated now wasn’t established until 1987, expanded to the whole month six years after Sen. Orrin Hatch and Rep. Barbara Mikulski co-sponsored a a joint Congressional resolution proclaiming a national Women’s History Week.  Each year the President issues a proclamation officially declaring the month. In his statement yesterday, President Obama said, “We must carry forward the work of the women who came before us and ensure our daughters have no limits on their dreams, no obstacles to their achievements, and no remaining ceilings to shatter.”

Well, yes! My excitement about this month is not as unbridled as it might seem., however. A month of Women’s History implies that the other 11 months belong to men’s history or, as it’s known, history. No one is a bigger advocate of celebrating women’s history than me and I’m too young to be completely cynical but it’s hard not to look at the state of the nation for women and feel like these designations are just a pat on the head from the group of cigar smoking patriarchs who say with that pat, “Now dearie, we gave you a whole month to talk about you and your friends, what more could you want now?” We’ll take the month, thanks, and we’ll use it to educate and inspire but if you think it will hold off our revolt you’ve got another thing coming – we’ll use this month to plan that, too.

Women’s History Month is also yet another occasion in which women of color are asked to bifurcate their identities. WHM directly follows Black History Month and precedes Asian American History Month in May.  Are Black women supposed to shed their gender during February and their race in March? Those of us who make our income speaking know that demand soars during  “our month” – I can only imagine how many qualified women of color speakers lose gigs because bookers can only see them as filling one part of a quota. As we celebrate WHM, it’s important to point out as often as possible that each and every part of a person’s identity – gender, race, sexuality, cis or trans status, ability, class, nationality, religion – make them who they are and no one should be asked to do the impossible of shaving off one part of themselves to fit into a month-shaped or any shaped box.

Problematic as it is, I’m excited about Women’s History Month because we’ve got the opportunity to make it rich and diverse and meaningful. I’ll take any platform I’m given to change how young girls and boys see the notable people of the past so they can better imagine and fashion themselves into that of the future. (See, still naïve and idealistic!) I’m going to try to be active on the blog this month, with features on both women of history and women making history, round-ups of great WHM events happening on the web and in cities across the country, and fun quizzes, quotes, and pictures. I’ll also be using my Facebook and Twitter feeds as women’s history tributes and continuing to chronicle each day in women’s history via the Radical Women’s History Project. If you’ve got an event, quote, any fun women’s history thing I should know about, please let me know!

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